Album Reviews

Taj Mahal and Keb’ Mo’

TajMo

Artist:     Taj Mahal and Keb’ Mo’

Album:     TajMo

Label:     Concord

Release Date:     05.05.2017

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One of the most difficult things for mega name artists to pull off is to meet expectations when so much hype precedes the album. In that vein, I love Keb’ Mo’s comment, “We wanted to do a real good record together, but didn’t want to do the record that everybody expected us to do.”

I can’t speak to what “everybody expected” but my guess would be that most envisioned a largely acoustic duo recording in a rather stripped down mode. Instead, we have as Taj says, “a pretty upbeat, celebratory record,” complete with a three-piece horn section (Nashville-based, not the Phantom Blues horns) and a host of background singers on five of the eleven tracks. Yes, the stripped down duo approach is here too but only on three tunes. A few key guests such as Billy Branch, Lizz Wright, Joe Walsh, Sheila E. and Bonnie Raitt make cameo appearances too. Keb’ Mo’ is the driving force here in terms of writing or co-penning six tunes, and assembling mostly a Nashville-based core of backing musicians that include the likes of Colin Linden and Phil Madeira. There are a host of contributors. For example, four different drummers are featured across the album. Not only do we have two mega names. This is one mega project that holds together astonishly well.

The first track, “Don’t Leave Me Here,” written by Taj and Keb’ with an assist from Gary Nicholson is an exceptionally strong beginning as you distinctly hear Taj’s raspy voice combine with the smoother Keb’s as if the two had been singing together for years. Billy Branch’s harp and the horn section just keep it pulsating and you know from the outset that you’re listening to something truly special. Similarly, these orginals, “All Around the World,” “That’s Who I Am,” and the Taj signature Caribbean-influenced, infectious “Soul” carry a similar vibe. You’ll hear Bonnie Raitt’s background on their cover of John Mayer’s “Waiting on the World to Change” and Joe Walsh on the cover of The Who’s “Squeeze Box,” two rather unexpected choices. The best example to the two icons trading guitar licks is the cover of “Diving Duck Blues,” where it’s just Taj on the acoustic and Keb’ Mo’ on the resonator.

Thinking about his recording legacy, Taj has been with us now for almost half a century, laying down not only blues but varieties of roots music from around the world. Keb’ Mo’ is not as wide-ranging (few are) but has proven to be versatile in the realms of blues, roots, and R&B. In one sense, he’s kind of this generation’s Taj. Although this is their first studio collaboration, the two have known each other for decades. They have played live together occasionally over the years and Taj actually helped Keb’ Mo’ secure his first record deal. “The making of this record spanned two and half years, working in my home studio whenever we could get together between tours,” says Keb’. “ And over that two and half years, we got to know each other really well. Making this record was a really, really big deal for me. Taj is a stellar human being, just a brilliant man, and I learned a lot working with him. It’s an honor to have that kind of person n your life, and there was a lot of trust that developed between us.” Taj counters, “We’d been thinking about collaborating for a little while, but once we actually got in there, I was really impressed. Keb’s really good at keeping the ball up in the air. He’s a hell of a guitar player, and I’m just amazed at some of the stuff he put out there.”

This not only meets expectations. It exceeds them. Look for TajMo to garner tons of awards, including a Grammy. And, better yet, the two will be touring. Be sure to catch them this summer.

—Jim Hynes

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